Labore et constantia

The starting point of the typeface Portonovo is the book Martyrologium Romanum printed by the Plantin Press from 1690.

Photo of Martyrologium Romanum from 1690...

...and its cover

I came across a copy of this book in an exhibition at the Cathedral of Cefalù in Sicily. Intrigued by the quality of the typeface used and the beautiful typesetting, I was inspired to bring these letters into the digital age.

The print workshop Officina Plantiniana was one of the leading publishers in the 16th century. Christophe Plantin founded this institution in Antwerp, and his work influenced many type designers. Typefaces like Times New Roman or Plantin are based on the work of the Officina Plantiniana.

Labore et constantia (Labor and Constancy) was the motto of Christophe Plantin, printer and major publisher

High-definition scan of a page from Martyrologium Romanum

The Beginning

I started by closely analysing the typeface: scanning the letters, comparing shapes, and identifying common characteristics. I was particularly interested in the streamlined rhythm of the typeface. The letters resembled early cuts of Caslon and Garamond. The style was elegant and highly organised.

But how could I digitise such forms? The letterpress printing technique used in combination with cotton paper made the details blurry. I selected my favourite scanned version of each letter, focusing on showcasing the structure of the source font rather than the details of the printing process.

A close-up of the source typeface reveals ambiguity

A sketch made with tracing paper captures the essence of the structure

I enjoyed exploring the possibilities, especially with the serifs. They were squared and harmonised well with the rhythm of the source material. In other aspects, I aimed to stay close to the source.

The refinement process was quite tedious and lengthy. Achieving the perfect rhythm in the text was a challenge. Once I had the fundamentals in place, I began testing the fonts.

An early quirky version indicated the direction...

...of the final version of Portonovo.

After numerous laser printings, I felt that Portonovo needed a second version for smaller sizes. I designed the two versions to be as similar as possible, with the main difference being the increased x-height and looser tracking.


A variable font animation shows the two versions

Out of sight, out of mind.

I am thrilled to witness the essence of the source typeface captured in Portonovo. Working with these inspiring historic books, printed by one of the most significant presses, was an absolute delight.

Portonovo fills a void in the typographic landscape. It boasts a sophisticated aesthetic with a modern and minimalist touch. The inclusion of two versions makes the font highly adaptable, providing designers with a multitude of possibilities.

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